Homecoming

Two years ago, when I decided to take a break from the United Methodist Church, I wrote about the decision both on this blog, and on another blog convened by a friend of mine from Wales. I also wrote about my feelings of being “in exile” in the Episcopalian church – still identifying with the theology and history of Methodism, but unable to continue participating in a church culture that denied many called and gifted friends of mine – denied them an opportunity to use their gifts in service to the United Methodist Church. They needed to be honest about their desire to partner with someone of the same gender, but the church denied that it was possible for their relationships to be as blessed and life-giving as the best partnerships between men and women.

That is, the church denied it in a legal sense. The question was put to a vote – are United Methodist Christians, after prayerful scriptural discernment, still divided on “the issue of homosexuality” ? The majority at General Conference 2012 voted to deny that this is so. And since, by the law of the United Methodist Church enshrined in the Book of Discipline, one can only speak for the United Methodist Church by using those words that the General Conference votes on by majority rule, we are left with the awkward ability to assert: “The United Methodist Church has chosen not to tell the truth about how individuals associated with the church feel about same-sex relationships.” Because, after all, the vote was not unanimous. Not even nearly so. Which means that the rejected motion was precisely correct as written – while the majority of United Methodists have decided that same-sex relationships go against what God desires for us, there is a sizable minority that disagrees.

If you read my post from 2 years ago, “Invisible Methodist,” you can see how my thinking has shifted slightly on this topic. Then, I interpreted the Conference’s decision to be declaring that I, and others who agreed with me, were not thoughtful, “Bible-believing” Christians – not, in fact, United Methodists. But now, I have decided that I was disempowering myself and the rest of those who think like me by granting this power to General Conference. I had not considered the other possibility: The General Conference, and so The Book of Discipline (and thereby, from a church law perspective, the United Methodist Church) can lie. And that is what the church elected to do that day.

Denominations are fallen institutions. The United Methodist Church is not the only group with a prevarication problem. But it’s my family, and so they are the group I am concerned with at the moment.

I’m sharing this now because I am long overdue to announce: I am back with the United Methodist Church. There is a sense in which I never left, in that the entire time that I was worshipping with the Episcopalians I never officially joined the Episcopalian Church. I was following UMC news, staying in touch with UMC pastors, and reading and writing for UMC publications. But insofar as my family officially has been attending Duke Memorial UMC since before Advent, and as we joined a couple of months ago, I am connected with a local UMC congregation again.

In the midst of the ongoing debate about whether the UMC will divide over the issue of relationships between persons of the same gender, I have hesitated to announce this new congregational affiliation on the blog. I do not want for this personal action to be reinterpreted as a witness against schism. I have done no such thing. Indeed, I do not know how long a “union” can last when one group feels compelled to hide the very existence of people who disagree – or at least chooses to deny that any folks who disagree with them (including their fellow church members) are really Christian. Instead, I have decided that I shall no longer allow a narrow majority of Conference delegates be the ones to determine whether or not I am “really” Methodist. Though I have returned to United Methodist congregational life, I will not be silent when I feel that those who lead us are moving in the wrong direction.

I enjoyed my sojourn with the Episcopalians at St. Luke’s – they are a delightful family of committed Christians, and it was a privilege to be invited to join in their common life. I miss weekly Eucharist, and weekly coffee hour, and the kneelers… I miss the dear sisters and brothers I met there. But I felt called back into the happy mess that is United Methodism in the American South. I have returned to the place that, more than anywhere else, is my earthly home.

Unity and Schism

I am posting this as part of a synchro-blog on the topic of schism in the UMC. This synchro-blog was organized in honor of the first anniversary of Dream UMC.

For my friends who are not United Methodist, I apologize. I am keeping the tone of this piece “inside baseball,” because I didn’t allow enough time today to revise this for a wider audience.

I remember about five years ago, talking with a friend about how frustrated I was with the failure of the UMC to make any forward progress on inclusivity at General Conference. She pointed out the problems that the Episcopal church was having within the Anglican communion because of choosing to ordain gay priests, and said to me, “Doesn’t it pose an ecumenical problem? Because there is so much disagreement about this issue across denominations?”
She and I were both on track to be ordained, each in different denominations. I replied, “Ordaining women is an ecumenical problem, by those standards. Do you think that we shouldn’t be ordained?”

The dilemma in debates about what makes schism worthwhile and what does not is that it so often neglects the reality that the church is already in schism. Many times over the past centuries, Christians have decided that they could not in good conscience continue under what they saw as a corrupt, or unfaithful, or simply ineffectual system. It happened over indulgences, over communion, over pastoral authority… In the U.S., nearly every Protestant denomination split over slavery, including the Methodists – who splintered into not two, but at least five different denominations over the slavery issue.
The Church is already a fractured family. There are those who say that we should always try and stick it out, but given our history, this seems arbitrary. Why is this iteration of our church more sacrosanct than others? For others who vaguely assert that of course there is a line that they are not willing to cross, I would like to know: where is that line, exactly? And how did the failure of General Conference to even name that we disagree not cross it?

I have to admit, I have been hoping for a split. I see the seeds of a split in the actions of the Northeastern and Western jurisdictional conferences – if the jurisdiction can vote to ignore actions of the General Conference, then it is only a short step to having a whole jurisdiction brought up on charges for failing to uphold the Discipline. Which might be the best kind of split, because then churches don’t have to decide where they stand, initially. Instead, the church would split along geographic lines initially, but individual congregations could hash out different positions over time.
I like the idea of a split because I think that we could all benefit from having scaled down operations – from not being such a major player in everything from lobbying to relief to publishing. Yes, we do great stuff with the money and members we have. But we have turned our denomination into an idol, so conferences and bishops and publications all put too much energy into increasing everyone’s anxiety about how many people we have as compared to fifty years ago, and how relevant we are, and what is our brand, etc. Which leads to some truly awful ad campaigns (Remember the one with the dandelion? “If you can wish, you can pray.” Um, no. Way to trivialize church, guys!), and worse – to pastors whose ministries are driven more by fear than by love.
I like the idea of a split because it lets so many pastors off the hook. By and large, pastors in the U.S. are opposed to the restrictions on ministry by and to gays and lesbians, but leaving the church (or even putting themselves in a position to be kicked out) means losing a job with health benefits in a bad economy – usually a job that is the only one the pastor has any interest in having. And let’s not forget how many pastors marry young – which means that they have families to support. Splitting would allow pastors who oppose the restrictions to stay pastors and live into their convictions about gay marriage.
And I like the idea of a split because it would show gay and lesbian United Methodists that they have not been forgotten or abandoned – that they are as important to the church as the bullies are.

But admittedly, I have a much more selfish reason to like the idea of a split: I have already split. No longer clergy, I don’t have a voice at annual conference or the ability to get kicked out for defying the rules that bind clergy only. And after more than 20 years of following these issues, I am tired of waiting for things to change at General Conference. Or, more accurately, I have stopped believing that things ever will change at General Conference. So I find myself in an Episcopalian congregation, but every time I come close to joining, I come up against a reservation that is strong enough to keep me on the margins. I am realizing that I still want to be a Methodist – I am a Methodist without a Methodist congregation, until my gay friends can be Methodist pastors, until they can be married in a Methodist church. Until there is a Methodist option for them, there is no Methodist option for me, either.

Maybe you feel that by leaving, I have forfeited my place at the table. I get that – you are sticking it out, and that is not easy. But the voices of the Methodist diaspora need to be heard. There are many pastors and would-be pastors who were driven out of the church because of who they love. There are many laypeople who cannot be a part of a church that half-heartedly welcomes them. In this sense, the question of whether or not the United Methodist Church should split is moot – the church is already split. There are many Methodists who are sitting in UCC, Episcopalian, Lutheran, and Presbyterian churches – or even not in church at all – who would happily return to a Methodist church that truly welcomes them.

Or, you know, keep trying to win over the people with the loud and angry voices, if you think it might make a difference. Give the whole Central Conference strategy a try, if you think they won’t see through it. I’ve shaken the dust of that town off of my feet, and walked on.

Global (United?) Methodism

June 2006.  I was exhausted and nauseated.  Some of that could be pinned on my first trimester, but the feelings were stronger than usual.  It did not help that I was intensely impatient with any foolishness during my pregnancy.  (I use the term advisedly – “the fool has said in his heart there is no God.” And it did not seem to me that many people on the floor were acting as if God were in the room with them.)

I threw down my tote bag full of fliers advertising various programs and agencies of the Virginia Conference, and collapsed onto the chair in our hotel room.  With enough vehemence to unsettle my husband, I began to pray: “Lord, strike them down – strike us down – every last one of us.  Something showy, a surgical strike that we cannot ignore, that any thoughtful Christian will attribute to your hand.  Strike us all with food poisoning – just the delegates and the alternates – let us all be too sick to show up tomorrow.  Cut all power to the Coliseum – but only to the Coliseum, and only when we try to enter.  Make us all too sleepy to wake up in the morning, so that none of us show up until time for evening worship.  But food poisoning would be best Lord.  Make each and every delegate as nauseated as I am right now, and more so.  This conference must be stopped!”  And then, though spent and hopeless, I continued to moan listlessly to my husband, like a child whose heart is no longer fully in her tantrum, as I got myself ready to slip into bed and sleep.

Much to my disappointment, the morning came like any other morning in Hampton, with delegates streaming into the Coliseum.  Unlike a few of my colleagues, who felt that voting should not be allowed to get in the way of a good game of golf, I forced myself to join the rank and file.  If God would not be persuaded to stand in our way like the angel before Balaam’s donkey, then I would proceed as I was bound to do.  And so it was that I was there to witness – if not something like repentance and reconciliation for the previous day’s shenanigans, then at least hopeful gestures in that direction.

That year, there had been a lot that I was not prepared for – I did not have my finger to the wind.  There were relationships and conversations that were going on behind the scenes – things that I could have been more educated about, if I had not been pointing my attention in other equally worthy directions.

When I started watching this year’s General Conference from afar, I was reminded of that last annual conference in which I fully participated.  I didn’t totally know what was going on, but I knew enough to be angry, enough to wish to wash my hands of the idea of placing ecclesial power in the hands of a strong centralized body.

I began to wonder if there was a way forward for United Methodism without first fracturing.

But then I decided that before speaking, I needed to learn more.  I needed to understand better what was happening, and what the legislative options were.  And something happened as I read and read and read some more – I began to have more hope for the United Methodist Church than I have had in a long time.  Because just like God had a better idea than food poisoning to turn Annual Conference around six years ago, there is a better idea than further schism on the table: The Global Book of Discipline.

One of my frustrations with General Conference was that 41% of the delegates this year are from the Central Conferences, and yet General Conference continues to address issues that are largely relevant to the U.S., in very U.S.-centric ways.  Another frustration was the intense micro-managing of local congregations that takes place at this global level.  But the Global Book of Discipline proposal is a first step to addressing both of these issues – making the Discipline leaner, and more broadly applicable across cultures.

I still wonder about the wisdom of the United Methodist Church as an international body.  I wonder about the history of the central conferences, and how much is rooted in a colonialist impulse to keep a paternalistic eye on the beneficiaries of our missionary largesse.  I visited with leading members of the Peruvian Methodist Church some years ago, and I remember that they did not see any benefit to joining the United Methodist Church.  What is the history of this difference?  Why are the Methodist churches in some European countries United Methodist, and others not?  Why most of Africa, but not South Africa?  Why the Philippines, but not Latin America?  What would be the result of making the U.S. a central conference (or 2 or 3 central conferences), so that we would all be on even footing?  What if, instead, we spun off the central conferences into their own churches, without them being obligated to come to the U.S. every 4 years to listen to us suggest (in English) such things as that we restructure the entire UMC in order to address the falling membership numbers in the U.S. churches?

The more I read, the more hopeful I became, but the more questions I had.  I wished I could travel the world, talking to Methodists in every country about the history of Methodism in their country, and about their relationship (if any) to the UMC, and their feelings about that…

Actually, that would make a really great book.  Who wants to take it on?